Light on the Horizon

Originally Published in Fair Value

ON 8 DECEMBER 2020 in the city of Coventry in the UK, Margaret Kennan received the first publicly administered dose of the Pfizer/ BioNTech vaccine. At ninety-one years old, she described the experience as “the best early birthday present,” reflecting worldwide joy that, just possibly, this marked the beginning of the end of the COVID-19 pandemic. As I write, three weeks later, millions across the globe have been inoculated, markets have rebounded and we approach the New Year with rays of light that were well below the horizon only a few months ago.

And yet, dark clouds remain. Because, for all that the vaccine— and equivalent treatments from other biotech companies were a triumph of science before the first shot was administered there were protestations from some quarters. Fueled by social media, conspiracy theorists played on the fears of an already nervous population, peddling claims at times so ludicrous that they beggar belief. In what is almost the ultimate case of repeating your message regardless, they’ve succeeded in spooking a small but not insubstantial section of the public into questioning whether they might skip the treatment just when it’s needed most.

Wild Speculative Theories Continue

There are multiple issues at play here, and not the time or space to deal with them all. I’m going to consign claims that the vaccine will track us via 5G communication or harbors secretly implanted microchips to the dustbin of implausibility in which they belong. Whether we should allow airtime to such theories strikes me as a fine balance between freedom of expression versus the potential for public harm. Time will no doubt expose the nonsense, but sadly it seems there will always be some who choose to disregard the common-sense reasoning by which they lead their daily lives.

More concerning than the unhinged conspirators, are the mumblings that the vaccines are medically unsafe, that they’ve been developed too quickly, and the safest route is to pass on the treatment. What we have here is the consequence of a not unreasonable first question (can a vaccine be developed in under a year?) combined with a mistrust of our political leaders and a misunderstanding of science, to produce a spiral of doubt that risks undermining the whole enterprise. Or putting the whole thing more bluntly, we have a highly vocal section of society that wants the pandemic to end but prefers to hang back in the line, leaving the putative risk to others. 

Academic Term Free-riding

This is classic free-riding, a term usually reserved for scholars, but which most of us know as not pulling your weight. In academic terms, freeriding occurs when a party makes no contribution to an enterprise but reaps the same benefits as those whose labor and sacrifice made it possible. Economists regard this as a market failure; philosophers consider it a moral one. To understand why, it’s helpful to describe it in more concrete terms.

Free-ridding Economic Context

Imagine you lived in a small pre-industrial agrarian community that needed to irrigate its lands to improve production. All the farmers agree to work together to create a series of ditches and channels, giving two days of labor each week in a collective endeavor to deliver a benefit for all. Except, when work begins, one farmer, whose land is in the middle of the project, decides not to take part, focusing instead on building a swanky new house. When the irrigation system is in place, his land benefits, and his production increases just the same as the others, and yet, had everyone followed his behavior, the project would not have been possible.

Intuitively we know this is wrong. This is why John Rawles in his seminal Theory of Justice identifies a prohibition on crude freeriding as one of the key principles of a fair society-basing this assertion is not just on abstract reasoning, but on focus group after focus group coming to exactly the same conclusion. In the everyday world, it’s an economic and social problem that we’ve developed multiple routes (from taxation to copyright laws) to tackle. But when it comes to medical interventions, we hesitate at compulsion to comply.

Free-riding and Medical Free Choice

And that’s understandable because medical procedures raise some especially difficult issues. Questions of free choice and even religious belief come into play and we are rightly cautious of compelling individuals in what might be seen as personal space. However, it’s equally clear that to meaningfully address the biggest social disruption since the Second World War, we need the vast majority of us to play our part in the vaccine program. The problem is particularly acute because those who refuse inoculation increase the risk for others by raising the likelihood that the virus will linger and mutate.

Right Not to Comply

On the whole, western democracies have relied on personal benefits rather than community obligations to drive a voluntary uptake. As herd immunity builds and our collective risk recedes, we tend to forebear those few who chose to take a different path. Those societies, with a greater emphasis on social cohesion, would take a less tolerant view of their “right” to not comply.

The judgment is a delicate one to make, and not without real and tangible consequences. Only recently, there were outbreaks of measles in the UK that can be directly linked to the now spurious claims about the safety of the MMR vaccine and a consequent reluctance by certain community groups to have their children vaccinated. Many parents who refused cited a belief that they need not worry because of wider herd immunity and that they were concerned about (mis)reported side effects. Their children, who subsequently contracted the disease, are the ones who paid the price of that folly.

Right Not to Comply and Business Leadership

Business leaders will face similar issues, for if a company is not a collective endeavor with responsibility to both individuals and wider stakeholders, then what is? What, for example, should be the limits on our expectations of employees? Can we legitimately insist on the vaccination of all colleagues, save perhaps for those with genuine medical or faith-based reasons for exclusion? And what of our customers in certain sectors (cruise liners, concerts, and sporting events spring to mind) might we insist that proof of vaccination is a pre-requisite of our supplying a service? I suspect, at least in the short term, that some will.

More widely than the recent pandemic, business has an important role to play in nudging behaviors for the communal good. The organizations in which we work are, for many of us, the main place of close interaction with others outside our families. While we may not use the term freeriding, we intuitively know that we have obligations to our colleagues: “Not pulling your weight” is widely called out in terms of performance; living by our values is common currency in the modern workplace… We expect our colleagues to have our backs in the widest sense of that term, behaving in ways that respect our individuality but also recognize our responsibility to the shared endeavor.

Public Leadership and Private Flouting

This is why leaders in business and public life have a particular responsibility to live by the values they espouse. In the UK, a number of senior politicians and key advisors have been exposed to flouting the social distancing and lockdown directives-survey after survey has shown that their behavior lost the trust of the British public at a critical time in controlling the pandemic. The reason is simple, those who make the rules must measure up to them more stringently than most for not to do so is free-riding in its worst possible form.

Leaders Should Be a Model to Others

Leaders must also recognize that their behavior is a model for others and with this comes responsibility that can sometimes transcend our interests and beliefs. In the US, President Trump’s long-time refusal to wear masks and faux-macho posturing in the face of the virus will undoubtedly have cost many lives. Imagine the doubt that would have been sown if the same bravado were applied to the efficacy of a vaccine? As I write this article, Israel is leading the world in the inoculation of its citizens-interestingly, Prime Minister Netanyahu was very publicly one of the first in line.

Science Evidence Will Win Out

Looking to the immediate future, I expect the scientific evidence will win out: that our desire to end the misery of lockdown-not to mention the avoidable loss of life creates sufficient incentive without compulsion. Many of those who are disinclined to take the vaccine will reassess their views as the benefits become clear; the peddlers of conspiracies will no doubt find other outlets to feed their toxic paranoia. Ultimately, good sense will prevail.

And on this note, I’m hopeful in a wider sense. For Margaret Keenan was right, the vaccine is indeed the best early birthday present-not just for her, but for the world. And, as those rays of light I spoke of earlier begin to brighten, there is surely an opportunity to show what collective will and community endeavor can achieve. We are bigger and better than the free-riders in our midst. We can (and should) legislate and compel where absolutely necessary, but our most powerful weapon is to actively play our part, living by the values and behaviors we would hope others do too, and quietly dishonoring those who do not.